Low level radiation risk ‘under-estimated’

The cancer risk resulting from ‘low level’ radiation exposures at work has been under-estimated, the UN’s top cancer agency has said.

Researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), working with institutions in France, Spain, the UK, and the USA, report that workers in nuclear facilities who are persistently exposed to low doses of ionizing radiation experience an increase in deaths due to cancer.

The study published in the BMJ has implications for all workers potentially exposed to ionising radiation, including those in the nuclear, military, weapons, offshore, health and engineering sectors.

“This major update of cancer risk in a large cohort of nuclear workers who were exposed to ionizing radiation provides additional evidence to strengthen radiation protection measures for workers and the general public,” said IARC’s Dr Mary Schubauer-Berigan.

“Protection against harmful effects of exposure to ionizing radiation is of primary interest as its use becomes more widespread in contemporary medical and occupational settings.”

Co-author, Dr David Richardson, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, added: “We wanted to strengthen the scientific basis for radiation protection by directly studying workers in settings where low-dose and low-dose-rate radiation exposures occur.”

The International Nuclear Workers Study (INWORKS) study followed up 309,932 workers in the nuclear industry.

This latest analysis estimated the cancer risk increased by 52 per cent for every unit of radiation (Gray; Gy) workers had absorbed.

But when the analysis was restricted to workers who had been exposed to the lowest cumulative doses of radiation (0-100 mGy), this approximately doubled the risk of death from solid cancers per unit Gy absorbed.

Richardson DB and others. Cancer mortality after low dose exposure to ionising radiation in workers in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States (INWORKS): cohort study, BMJ, volume 382 :e074520, 2023. www.bmj.com

IARC website.

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